Ind vs SA T20I series: Dravid looking to give players long rope for staking claim to World Cup spots

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The buzz coming into the T20I series between India and South Africa was Umran Malik, the 22-year-old fast bowler who regularly challenged the speed gun during the Indian Premier League. India played five matches – the last game in Bangalore on Sunday was abandoned after 3.3 overs due to rain – but Malik didn’t get a game. Welcome to Rahul Dravid’s gurukul.

This series was Malik’s initiation as an apprentice, along with left-arm seamer Arshdeep Singh, an opportunity to get a feel of the Indian dressing room. Dravid believed in the process as a player and then as a captain. He is following it as the head coach of the Indian team.

Back in 1996, as the India probables had a camp before the World Cup, Dravid as a young player was a strong contender to make the final squad. The then selection committee, however, chose experience over youth and Dravid’s room-mate, the current Indian team batting coach Vikram Rathour, would confirm how the former told him about scoring centuries in the next Ranji Trophy matches to earn his selection for the Test series in England that followed the World Cup.

Even when the calls grew louder about bringing in Malik, after the hosts suffered back-to-back defeats to go two-down in the series, the head coach turned a deaf ear to outside noise. The same 11 players were picked for all five matches, with stability being the name of the game. The T20I series in the lead-up to the World Cup in Australia in four months’ time are preparation for the ICC event and the players need to play some matches at a stretch to prove their mettle. A young side without superstars showed that it had the character to bounce back from reverses.

“I don’t like judging people after one series or one game. The guys who got the opportunity here truly deserved the opportunity. They earned it. In this format of the game, you are going to have some good games and some bad games. Shreyas (Iyer), in the early part on a couple of tricky wickets, showed a lot of intent and played really positively for us. Ruturaj (Gaikwad) showed in one particular innings what quality and skills he has got,” Dravid said at the post-series press conference.

He added: “As you come closer and closer to events, you want to be able to firm up your final squad. You obviously take only 15 to the World Cup, but you obviously want to ensure you have 18-20 players (in the mix) and you are clear on that. We are certainly looking to firm up that squad as quickly as possible.”The series ended all square, but positive takeaways for India have been plenty. Ishan Kishan came here on the heels of a wretched IPL for Mumbai Indians. A tally of 206 runs from five matches at a strike rate of 150-plus would help him regain confidence. Harshal Patel took seven wickets, including a four-for. He can aspire for a T20 World Cup berth. The most heartening aspect was how he learnt from his mistakes. After being taken to the cleaners by David Miller in the first game in Delhi, the medium pacer altered his length against the South African marauder, getting the better of him in both Vizag and Rajkot. Back-of-a-length is where Miller is most vulnerable in this format. His strike rate comes down to around 112 against his career strike rate of 141.71, when the bowlers are targeting that 10-metre mark (from the popping crease). Harshal figured that out quickly and neutered the left-hander’s power-punch.

Dinesh Karthik enjoyed a second wind, vindicating the selectors’ decision to bring him back to the India fold on the basis of his exploits in the IPL. Along with Hardik Pandya, he could play the role of a finisher at the World Cup.

The biggest positive was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a bowler reborn, who walked away with the Man of the Series award. The medium pacer looked to have run his race after the last T20 World Cup. But the selectors and team management kept faith in his quality and experience. Kumar took six wickets in four innings in this series, at an economy rate of six runs per over.

“I’m always focused on getting back stronger, whether it’s my bowling or my fitness. I’m playing for years now; my role has always been the same. Bowl two in the Powerplay, bowl two at the end. These things are always the same, but as a senior I always think about helping the youngsters. I have been lucky that the captain has given me the full hand and said do what you want. In that regard I have been blessed,” the 32-year-old said at the presentation on Sunday.

A refreshing change in the batting approach was another positive. India seemed to have finally dumped their outdated slow-burn tactic, embracing aggression from the outset instead. “We were looking to play a slightly more positive and attacking brand of cricket right from the beginning and knew that it wasn’t always going to come off. But we are certainly clear about the kind of cricket we want to play,” Dravid said.

Revolving doors

It’s unlikely that he would be unduly concerned over Rishabh Pant’s string of low scores, although the stand-in skipper’s nature of dismissals has been pretty similar. Before Sunday’s match, the head coach was seen working with the left-hander at the nets. A player of his talent would regain form sooner rather than later.

About Pant’s captaincy, thrown in at the deep end after KL Rahul’s injury, it had to be work in progress. “Captaincy isn’t only about wins and losses. He is a young captain. He is learning all the time and growing as a leader. It’s too early to judge him (after one series),” Dravid observed.

India will have a new captain, Hardik, for the upcoming two-match T20I series in Ireland, as Pant will join the Test squad in Birmingham. Over the last eight months, India had five different captains across formats and Hardik would be the sixth. The head coach saw the upside to it.

“It’s been good fun. It’s been challenging as well. We probably had about six captains in the last eight months to work with, that wasn’t the plan. But yes, that’s just the nature of the game with the pandemic, and the number of matches that we are playing. Managing the squad, the workload, and the changes in captaincy as well… It meant I had to work with quite a few people,” he told the host broadcaster.